Comfortably seated with the wind in your hair and a warming drink in your hand… Could there be a better way to experience England’s longest lake? Ferries, originally rowing boats, have been moving passengers and goods up, down and across Windermere for centuries, but it was only in the 1845, with the launch of the first steamer, the ‘Lady of the Lake’, that cruising for the sake of cruising was born. A boat trip on Windermere, past tiny islands and enjoying views of towering fells, became a staple of the Lake District experience.
A large fleet of vessels now plies these waters, from converted steamers with three decks that hold more than 500 passengers to charming wooden launches with room for just 57 people. At the peak of the summer holiday season, there are dozens of scheduled sailings every day, varying from 30 minutes to 90 minutes. The entire length of the lake is covered, with the main embarkation points situated at Ambleside (Waterhead), Bowness and Lakeside. There are also piers at Brockhole, Wray Castle, Ferry House and Fell Foot.
Combined tickets enable travellers to link a boat trip with a visit to one of several local attractions – the Lakeland Motor Museum, the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway, and the Lakes Aquarium, all of which are located at the southern end of Windermere. Seasonal trips include summer evening buffets with live music, Santa sailings with Father Christmas on board and nature-themed cruises that include commentary by a National Park ranger. Among the species you might see are red-breasted merganser, mute swan, Canada goose, greylag goose, coot and the ubiquitous mallard. There are also large numbers of cormorants roosting on the islands. Otters frequent some of the quieter spots along the shore and it’s possible to see red deer and red squirrels in the woods. Come back in the winter to spot migratory birds such as tufted duck, goldeneye, pochard and great crested grebe.
Bikes are welcome on many services and, from May to September, there’s a dedicated bike boat that operates between Brockhole and Bark Barn on the western shore. Here, miles of traffic-free trails enable cyclists to discover the haunted woodland of Claife Heights. Bikes, tag-alongs and trailers can be hired from Brockhole. Similarly, Windermere Lake Cruises services open up countless opportunities for walkers, including several linear routes. Consider catching a boat from Bowness to Lakeside and then walking the seven miles north, through woods and along the quiet western shore, to Ferry House to catch the Cross Lakes Shuttle (April-October) back to Bowness. There is also a special ‘Walkers’ Ticket’ available from April until the end of October, which enables you to catch the boat across from the eastern shore to Wray Castle, walk the wooded shore path south for four miles to Ferry House and then catch the two boats needed to get you back to your starting point.